Greg's Reviews > Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion

Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart A. Kauffman
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Jan 13, 2010

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bookshelves: science, philosophy-theory-and-other-their-i
Read from January 12 to 16, 2010

I don't believe in God. I'm not able to. I'd have to have a serious portion of my brain cut out, or have my personality wiped or something to have faith in good faith (in an existential sort of way).

I do like the Bible, as a piece of post-modern 'meta-fiction' it can't be beat. Lots of little side stories, and unreliable narrator, major inconsistencies that illustrate the the death of the author and radical subjectivity in relation to a textual work, some songs thrown in just like Pynchon would do, and to top it all off an out of left field ending that stylistically throws a curve ball no one would see coming. As something to base ones whole way of life on though? No, I think I'd rather try to build a system of belief out of Infinite Jest or Ulysses first.

Many people point to the hippie main character of the last 1/3rd or so of the book as being someone really great and the entire basis for our morality and that if he disappeared from our cultural memory we would probably start trying to eat the leg off of the next person we saw on the street because we'd be so ethically bankrupt that immediate cannibalism would be the only logical response. I agree the hippie did some good things. I don't really buy into the miracles, but he had a good heart and his driving the money lenders out of the temple was spot on; but then I think that most everything I like about this character I also like about Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. Now I'm not about to go worship him, even though a) I am 100% convinced that he actually exists, and b) because he is one of those people whose existence in the world I can say makes the world a little bit less of a shit hole than it would be without him but c) I'm not inclined to think that d) civilization as we know it would collapse without him or e) that he is without fault, deserving of worship, or anything else like that.

I'm being flippant, but as I think of it more there really are lots and lots of similarities between Ian Mackaye and JC but I'll share those maybe another time, or in comments.

Why all of this? I don't know, it's sort of a disclaimer that I don't believe in God. In case if my recent reviews of Christian prayer books might have confused you about my stance here.

Anyway, on to the review.

This is a weird and unbalanced book. The first 90 pages or so had me groaning that he was going to do some slight of hand to bring in God, or revert to Cartesian Dualism or some other philosophically untenable 'skyhook'. Instead he just really seemed to be set on pounding the crap out of the idea that everything can be reduced to physics. Now I'm not a scientist, but I think that he's being very misguided in his aims here. I don't think that there is anyone who really believes that physics will answer all of the questions of the universe, life, meaning etc. He sets up a straw man of reductionism and spends about a 100 pages beating the shit out of it, but in the end he really isn't saying anything. Yes, knowing all of the physics involved in driving your car to the hardware store, getting all the equations and knowing physic things that would explain what all happened wouldn't allow anyone to know anything about why you went to the store, or even necessarily where you were going, but I don't think that physics would try to answer that kind of question. It's the wrong tool for the job of why one went to the store. But physics was obviously involved every step of the way. It would be the same thing as reading a newspaper under a microscope and only being able to make out all of the little dots that the newsprint is made of. Studying those dots isn't going to tell you what is on the sheet of paper if you don't look at it from the right distance... but you can't say that those dots don't make up the newspaper you are reading just because only studying the dots would tell you nothing of the larger shape they make up.

He likes to bring Wittgenstein in to help prove his point, and over and over again makes the point that one doesn't 'understand' legal language without knowing the specified meanings of the legal words. That the meaning is separate from the words. That might be true, but without understanding normal language one would not be able to understand the nuances of legal language. A deaf and dumb person could not be taught legal language without first being engaged in regular, everyday language first. Legal language can be reduced to regular language, it's part of the foundation. Just like physics is one of the foundations (maybe the foundation, I don't know) of the physical world. Just try to get to the store without physics being involved, without physics it doesn't matter what you want to buy there because it just won't exist and you won't get there (and you won't exist either).

But then he turns his focus away from his rabid attacks on reductionism and gives about a hundred pages of some very interesting theories about how consciousness could arise, general evolution, and the mind / body problem. I won't go into the details here, most of it is theories, but they are sound theories and don't involved any additions of spirits or skyhooks, but mostly involve things like what role quantum mechanics could play in our understanding of the mind, and some ideas that Daniel Dennett deals with in his very interesting chapters on design space and Borges in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. These hundred pages got the book the four stars.

But then he does something weird. He starts talking about the Sacred again. He has good intentions, sort of wanting to create a global awareness of our place in the world in hopes of making us all more responsible. Kind of an attempt to say that while we are just specks of dust in a vast universe, and while there is no God giving us meaning from above, there is something awe-inspiring involved, something we are all apart of that is miraculous that it transcends us and should be able to guide us to be a global community where we can all creatively thrive.... This is all fine and dandy, but then he wants to call this thing first the Sacred, and thinks that calling the infinite universe in all of its possibilities and wonders God. Not a God like in any religion, but God because it's a word we are all ok with.

Now, in our infinite wonderous world that contains in it a rich and complex language structure that allows for a really really large number of different combinations of letters that can make up words, why can't the author come up with something better than God to call the scientific wonders of the world that we are all a part of (which as I read more about the science of evolution I keep realizing more and more that the world is so much more interesting and awesome than I had ever imagined)? Who is going to like this idea? For a religious believer this is the equivalent of patronizingly patting them on the head. For someone who doesn't believe in God this is just idiotic, using a very loaded word with some really really bad connotations and fucked up belief systems attached to it but just saying that it no longer means that, and everyone will forget all of the words history. It would be like some academic deciding that nigger really is the best word for black people, but not nigger in any of it's historical uses, but as in a new great way that means to show all of the awesomeness of black people. Yeah, it wouldn't work.

Anyway that's some thoughts on this book. It was a more interesting book than I thought it would be, but also a little confusing, especially in trying to figure out exactly what the author was trying to accomplish. I suspect that he was sort of trying to cash in on the atheism / God cash cow that's currently a vogue of the publishing world, but that is cynical of me to say.
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Reading Progress

01/13/2010 page 90
28.13% "Straw man?"
12/14/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Greg They got just about everyone for that program.

message 4: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 13, 2010 07:26PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio All three of those conferences are great. I can't remember if I already droned on about this to you or not. Probably have. I know I dropped you the link to Owen Flanagan's talk from the third one. If you want to watch/listen to the first and third ones just drag your cursor over the "Meetings" tab and click "Beyond Belief."

They're supposed to have one every fall. I'm pissed that I haven't heard word one about a 2009 symposium. Maybe the footage will crop up later...

message 5: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 13, 2010 07:33PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio This is also full of great interviews:

My (obvious) favorites being Sam Harris, V.S. Ramachandran, Dan Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Paul & Patricia Churchland.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Aaaaaaand one more cool thing at that site:

message 7: by Greg (last edited Jan 13, 2010 08:44PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg I will watch all of these very soon. I am so far not too impressed by this book, I feel like I'm being bamboozled and that he is going to try to slip God into the mix in a sneaky way. I'll hold off on any rash opinions though until I see exactly what he does.

message 8: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 13, 2010 09:17PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio He's definitely being duplicitous with religious terms (from what I heard in the talk and from what I've read about the book). He makes some good points about pursuing profound feelings of awe and appreciating the beauty of nature, etc, etc, but is trying to doll it up for religious-minded people by basically hijacking the language of religion. Harris makes a comment about Kaufmann's talk later in the conference, something like 'I think there is a place for the sacred but there's no point in calling nature "God", as the religious people Stuart's trying to extend an olive branch to will sniff out the disingenuousness of it pretty quickly anyway and will want nothing to do with the naturalism he's actually talking about.' That was highly paraphrased but you get the idea.

Greg He's creating some strange premises about agency, and using scientific findings with a mash-up of John Searle and Wittgenstein prove how an entity (bacteria, a bird, a red panda, a person, etc.,) is irreducible to basic chemical / theories of physics, kind of against a very narrow minded reductionist view of life, that I'm not sure if anyone actually holds. I'm kind of worried he's going to to try to slip in a Cartesian duality in at some point. So far the book is weakest anytime he steps away from the science and starts talking about philosophy or history, two areas where he takes particular views or theories and presents them as facts.

message 10: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 13, 2010 09:29PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Greg wrote: "a very narrow minded reductionist view of life, that I'm not sure if anyone actually holds."

That's a classic strawman to knock down. People pay good money to see that one knocked down all the time. Maybe he's just trying to write a best seller...

message 11: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 13, 2010 09:53PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Greg wrote: "So far the book is weakest anytime he steps away from the science and starts talking about philosophy or history"

I've heard this about him before, too. He's apparently quite a good biologist, but his views on reductionism vs. emergentism are probably in need of a good philosophical exorcism.

The only aspect of the universe that I'm really open to the idea of being a strongly emergent property is consciousness itself. But I definitely see the case for reductive explanatory frameworks as well. Consciousness is the most confusing philosophical topic I've ever gotten tangled up in. I find so many positions compelling at various points with the exception of substance dualism. But everything from David Chalmer's property dualism to the Churchland's eliminative materialism makes a certain amount of sense to me, depending on the moment. I'm also a newbie though. It's fascinating and extremely frustrating stuff.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio So, were you fully persuaded that snow flakes are indeed sacred? Or was this just a given beforehand?

message 13: by Greg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "So, were you fully persuaded that snow flakes are indeed sacred? Or was this just a given beforehand?"

He doesn't really cover this in the book, except I guess in the creative powers of nature in the design space / Library of Babel way that Dennett talked about.

I do know that snowflakes are indeed sacred though because they are the dandruff of Jesus and the angels falling on Earth.

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